A Century in Review - The 1910s: War Forces Growth

 - January 11, 2008, 8:49 AM

Like many an infant, aviation entered the world tentatively when the Wright Brothers coaxed a manned, heavier-than-air powered flying machine off the ground. Flight in America after the Wrights’ achievement was marked more by squabbling over patents than by rapid advances in the science, and the Europeans, particularly the French, seized on the new sport keenly. And sport it was for the most part during the early years, as designers sought to outdo their rivals in speed and spectacle. With the sole exception of Glenn Curtiss’ short-lived mark of 43.35 mph on Aug. 23, 1909 (a record that fell to Louis Blériot’s 46.18 mph in Rheims the very next day), French pilots and designers held the airspeed record exclusively not only during the diaper years of aviation but right through until 1922, when Billy Mitchell, flying a Curtiss HS D-12 near Detroit at 222.98 mph, wrested it from Frenchman Sadi Lecointe, who in turn regained it four months later in a Nieuport-Delage 29.

As noted last month, this monthly tribute to the centennial for the remainder of 2003 will examine aviation’s progress approximately decade by decade, with the emphasis on approximately.

The 1910s, covered here, are marked by a growing sense of adventure and exploration as aviation finds its feet. The spirit of the decade could be said to have taken hold with the July 25, 1909 crossing of the English Channel by Blériot, perhaps the first true milestone in the journey begun by Orville and Wilbur almost six years earlier. Considering the frailty of the airframes and the cantankerous performance of their engines, Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel was a remarkable achievement, relying as it did on an Anzani engine developing a mere 25 hp to vault the moat that had forever isolated Great Britain from the mainland.

Vaulting ‘La Manche’
Naturally, there had been competition to be first across “La Manche,” spurred on by a £1,000 prize offered by Daily Mail owner Lord Northcliffe, who was fascinated both by flight and by the notion that a newspaper should create news rather than merely report on it. Blériot was one of three contenders, the others being English playboy Hubert Latham (already well known for his boat and car racing exploits in France) and Comte de Lambert, who had learned to fly at the hand of Wilbur Wright and owned two Wright biplanes. Like Blériot, Latham chose a monoplane (a Levavasseur Antoinette IV) and made his first attempt on July 19 after being foiled for many days by wind and rain. After finally taking off from Calais at 6:42 a.m., he suffered an engine failure and made a smooth landing on the water. As befitting the image of the big-game-hunting, playboy racer, the sailors sent to rescue him with the French naval vessel Tarpon found Latham sitting astride his buoyant machine smoking a cigarette.

The following Sunday morning, Blériot, whose airplane had been brought from Paris on the same train carrying Latham’s replacement Antoinette, jumped at a break in the weather to launch his attempt from a farm near Sangatte. Neither Blériot (on crutches and nursing a foot badly burned by engine oil during a recent flight) nor his airplane was in tip-top shape, but the pressure to fly was intense. After an exploratory flight around Calais that proved his machine to be up to the task, he took off into light mist at 4:35 a.m., rising into the first glimmerings of dawn, and headed out across the water with no compass, no map, not even a watch.

Blériot soon overhauled the French Naval destroyer that had been dispatched to steam along his route, and found himself with no visual references, writing later: “I turn my head to see whether I am proceeding in the right direction, and I am amazed. There is nothing to be seen–neither the destroyer nor France nor England. I am alone. I can see nothing at all.” Blériot managed to keep his Model XI upright and more or less on course and, some 36 minutes after takeoff, he crash-landed near Dover, without injury to himself but smashing the propeller and landing gear of his airplane and, more important, beating Latham to the Daily Mail prize and the history books.

After his Channel crossing, Blériot’s monoplanes were much in demand, both by wealthy individuals and by the military. But in March 1912 Blériot logged another first: first time a government ordered the grounding of a specific type of aircraft. Five prominent French pilots had died in Blériot monoplanes following wing failure under negative-G loading. Within two weeks the wings had been reinforced, officials had lifted the ban and Bleriot’s reputation was burnished since it was he who had first identified the weakness and, despite the potential harm to his prestige, published a report about it.

Biplanes ruled in aviation’s first years. The first U.S. monoplane to fly was the Walden III, designed by Dr. Henry Walden and flown on Dec. 9, 1909, at Mineola, Long Island, N.Y. A 22-hp three-cylinder Anzani provided the power.

Getting a pilot certificate in those days was more a matter of demonstrating survival than of conforming to any curriculum or standard. On Oct. 22, 1910, Sir Thomas Sopwith, having bought and assembled a Wright-Howard biplane, attempted to combine the maiden flights of both himself and his new machine. He crashed but emerged intact from the wrecked airplane, and promptly ordered another.

Less than a month later he made his second attempt at being both student and test pilot. He carried out some taxiing trials before lunch, took off and flew some circuits in the afternoon and by teatime had qualified for his pilot certificate (number 31). Sopwith took his first passenger aloft that same evening, and within three weeks, after logging no more than 10 hours, he had established new British distance and duration records. Such was the unfettered pace of progress in these early years. Sopwith, of course, went on to greater renown for his World War I Camel.

Some notable firsts and other superlatives during this decade:

• The first midair collision is thought to have occurred in October 1910 during an aviation meet in Milan, Italy. It involved Capt. Bertram Dickson in a Farman and a Frenchman by the name of Thomas flying an Antoinette. Thomas escaped unhurt, but Dickson was seriously injured and never flew again.

• The largest crowd that assembled to watch a flying display before World War I was a gathering of almost 750,000 Indians who watched Henri Jullerot fly a Bristol military biplane in Calcutta on Jan. 6, 1911.

• The first official airmail flight in the world was made on Feb 18, 1911. It was a modest run. French pilot Henri Pequet flew a Humber biplane about five miles from Allahabad, India, to Naini Junction, across the Jumna River, carrying some 6,500 letters.

• Power to weight. March 24, 1911, marked the first time 12 passengers had ever ridden together in an airplane. Roger Sommer performed the feat in a biplane of his own design powered by an engine producing just 70 hp.

• The first nonstop flight from London to Paris came less than two years after Blériot’s Channel crossing. It was made by Pierre Prier (chief flight instructor at the Blériot School, Hendon, England), flying a 50-hp Gnome-powered Blériot monoplane that completed the trip in 3 hr 56 min. Prier departed from Hendon and landed at Issy-les-Moulineaux.

• Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to receive her pilot certificate. She was also the first woman to pilot an airplane across the English Channel, a feat she managed aboard a Blériot monoplane on April 16, 1912.

By the end of 1912 there were just shy of 2,500 certificated pilots worldwide. France led the roster by a wide margin, with 966, followed by Great Britain with 382, Germany with 335, the U.S. with 193, Italy with 186 and Russia with 162. All other countries’ pilot tallies were only in double digits.

The Airplane as Weapon
The remainder of the 1910s were shaped largely by the airplane’s evolution into a weapon to serve in World War I. Aviation was no different from any other technological advance in that it attracted the attention of the military, which would soon bury early (and painfully naive) predictions that the airplane would never amount to anything more than a plaything. “Aviation is fine as sport, but as an instrument of war it is worthless,” said Gen. Ferdinand Foch, professor of strategy at the Ecole Superieur de Guerre, in 1911.

The U.S. government bought its first airplane, a Wright biplane, from the Wright brothers on July 30, 1909, for the sum of $25,000, plus a bonus of $5,000 because it exceeded the specified maximum speed of 40 mph. America logged some firsts in military aviation, including the first military firearm to be fired from an airplane (Lt. Jacob Earl Fickel fired a rifle from his single-seat Curtiss biplane at a target in Sheepshead Bay on Aug. 20, 1910); and the first missiles dropped from an airplane (lead darts released by Glenn Curtiss on June 30, 1910, from a height of 50 feet at Hammondsport, N.Y.). The first bombing raid from an airplane in anger occurred during the war between Italy and Turkey over what is now known as Libya, which was then part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. On Nov. 1, 1911, Lt. Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Blériot onto an Ottoman encampment.

When World War I began in 1914, the airplane was thrust into roles to which it was ill suited. It was still a relatively frail contraption powered by unreliable engines, but military service demanded that airplanes fly daily–with all that entailed in terms of serviceability, reliability and robustness. Engines such as the Hispano-Suiza V8 emerged to pave the way for reliable, economical postwar powerplants. At the outset of the war, aero engines typically produced 80 hp; by the end of the conflict in 1918 the American 12-cylinder Liberty engine was producing 400 hp. Rotary engines such as those built by Gnome and Le Rhone were light and powerful, but when designed to produce much more than 150 hp, their fierce gyroscopic forces (generated by the rotation of the entire cylinder mass and propeller around a fixed crankshaft) made the airplane to which they were mounted too squirrelly, even for pilots who in Sopwith Camels and Fokker Triplanes had used those same forces to their maneuvering advantage.

The airplane’s primary role in World War I was to support the soldiers in the trenches, and a new breed of hero was born–names such as Fonck, Rickenbacker (“Fighting in the air is not sport; it is scientific murder”), Nungesser, Immelmann, Richthofen, Ball, McCudden, Mannock, Voss, Lufbery, Boelcke.

Bombers were developed to take warfare to cities and factories. Some of them were astoundingly large for their day: the four-engine Sikorsky Ilya Mourametz of 1915 spanned nearly 100 feet; the Zeppelin Staaken R.IV, powered by four 260-hp Mercedes inline six-cylinder engines, had a wing span of 138 feet and weighed nearly 29,000 pounds (4,400 of those pounds being bomb load)–this just 14 years after the Wrights’ first flights. It was the bombers that formed the basis for the first airliners after the war (a pattern that would be repeated after the end of World War II).

World War I forced a process of maturation on the airplane, and the spirit of the next decade began in 1919 with the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by two men in just such a bomber–a Vickers Vimy.